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Sowing the seeds of mental toughness

Riders invest huge amounts of time, money and effort in a bid to improve. We all accept that working hard is important for success, but to perform at our best we also have to be economical with the time we spend learning. In getting the best from ourselves and our horses we must do two things; increase the quality of what we learn, and increase the rate at which we learn it.

Learning to ride with confidence and freedom depends on being able to recreate the competition mindset in training. It’s easy to believe that just because we spend every available hour schooling, we must be doing all we can. Unfortunately, sport is full of mixed messages about how many “hours per week” it takes to achieve a certain standard, yet much less emphasis seems to be put on quality. A session that emphasises quality over quantity will be one that is well-planned, structured, sufficiently challenging, focused and engages both horse and rider. The more advanced you are as a rider, the more you must rely on quality to improve your performance.

Research consistently demonstrates that our brains allow us to perform a skill much better when we perform that skill under the same conditions that we learnt it. For example, have you ever walked across the house to get something from another room only to forget what you wanted? The best way of remembering is by going back to the place where you thought about it originally. This is because the brain recalls information by cleverly associating that information with cues in the environment around us when we learnt it.

So how does this relate to our riding? For many of us, training is a very routine behaviour that we easily grow comfortable with. This is in stark contrast to how we generally experience competition. Our relaxed practice mindset may allow us to perform exceptionally well in training, but it does not train our brain to work efficiently under the intensity of competition.

Here are just a few important tips for helping you train in the correct mode:

Before Your Session

Riders naturally spend a lot of time thinking about upcoming competitions. This is natural and can be helpful when thinking is constructive. Unstructured thinking can easily turn negative leading to excessive worry, lack of sleep and loss of confidence. Prepare for every session by answering the following questions:

1. What, specifically, do I want to achieve this session?

2. How am I going to achieve this?

3. How will I know when I have achieved this?

4. How will this help me achieve my long-term goals?

During your session

– Occasionally imagine yourself at your next competition p

erforming as you would do.

– Do at least one thing that will really challenge you and your horse.

– Practice visualising specific parts of your session before actually doing them. This can have a profound effect on the way you actually do it.

– Immerse yourself fully into the session, but incorporate brief rest periods where you deliberately switch off.

– Avoid any likely distractions that may break your concentration.

– Once you have achieved your aims, stop! It doesn’t matter if this takes 10 minutes or 3 hours.

After the session

Reflect on the value of the session once you are back at home. What have you learnt and how might this help improve the quality of future training?

These tips are true of any sport, but particularly powerful in riding where the benefits will be seen by both horse and rider. If you write this all down you will be amazed how insightful it is when you look back at the end of the season.

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